Case Studies

No peer-review article? No problem.
How to get coverage without the coveted peer-review research.

For organizations with research breakthroughs, the peer-review article is the be-all and end-all if you want media coverage. Without it, mainstream media reporters may be interested in your pitch, but they´ll hold off on coverage until they have the third-party credibility they need.

Edge Communications, based in Encino, Calif., managed to get around the peer-review problem for its client, PrimeGen, a biotech company in Irvine. Even without the article, the PR team was able to win mention of PrimeGen in more than 100 newspapers, magazines and online journals in March and April.

Background: PrimeGen is the developer of PrimeCell, a stem-cell engineering product that is not derived from embryonic stem cells (i.e., from fetuses). PrimeGen came to Edge Communications in late 2005 to build awareness of the PrimeCell breakthrough, which involves using immature cells found in testicles and ovaries to create stem cells and develop them as nerve, heart and bone cells.

The fact that PrimeGen´s research did not involve embryonic stem cells was a definite plus, explains Edge Communications President Ken Greenberg. "The stem-cell controversy was the best thing that could happen for the company," he explains. "They´ve been able to sidestep the controversy, and we´ve been able to use the fact that their research doesn´t use embryonic cells."

So that was a plus - but the fact that PrimeGen had not published the research in a scientific journal was a big negative. "Peer review is still the gold standard by which scientific discoveries are viewed as credible, and thus are endorsed for broader publication," explains Jana Williams, a strategic communications consultant for Edge.

Adding to the pitching challenge was the fact that the company didn´t quite fit the mold of the typical biotech firm. "They´re not what people expect, which is a place full of Ph.Ds," Greenberg says, "but their unconventional orientation is a part of their story." Says Williams, "Because the company didn´t have that traditional Ph.D. structure, the media would be even more skeptical and would expect to see the articles in peer-review journals."

News peg: PrimeGen had selected Edge Communications after working with another PR firm without landing significant media coverage (the lack of a peer-review article being the main roadblock). The Edge team knew that they´d need to go beyond the usual circle of biotech and science trades to land media coverage.

"We had to speak English," says Greenberg, explaining that the PR team needed to interpret the importance of PrimeGen´s findings to the general media, not just the specialists. Williams says the plan included ideas for pitching business and even beauty reporters—anyone that might have an interest in the possible applications of the stem-cell breakthroughs.

In addition, "we created our plan so that we had a pre-peer review strategy and a post-peer review strategy," Greenberg says. Pre-peer review, the plan was to pitch media who wouldn´t be hung up on the lack of a journal article. Also part of the strategy: "We wanted to have other scientists validate the work of the company," Greenberg says.

The PR team initially reached out to top science reporters at major outlets like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, knowing they might not cover the PrimeGen news immediately. They hoped this would pave the way for coverage down the road, Williams says: "They didn´t say no to us—but they did say they needed the peerreview article."

The pitch: In late March, the team found a way to generate discussion of PrimeGen without the peer-review article. A research team in Germany had discovered so-called "germ-line" stem cells in mice, and was publishing its findings in the peer-review journal Nature. Reuters had also picked up on the story.

The obvious PR tactic might be to ignore the German team´s breakthrough, since it appeared to compete directly with PrimeGen´s own research. However, "we openly cited articles and stories about this research and framed it in support of PrimeGen´s work here in the U.S.," explains Williams. "We decided to embrace it. Using the peer-reviewed journal as a stepping stone, we noted that PrimeGen was excited that another independent research team had confirmed its findings in mice. In effect, we let the German research speak for them."

Three days after the team found out about the German discovery, they put together a media advisory and a press release citing the German research, but also touting PrimeGen´s breakthrough. "We explained that PrimeGen had already been engaged in this work with human tissue - not only mouse tissue -and that the findings had been submitted to a scientific publication, even though no publication date had yet been set," Williams says.

Results: Reuters, which had reported on the original Nature article, picked up on PrimeGen´s news and filed an article that appeared in more than 100 U.S. and overseas newspapers. And, "because of the Reuters story, two scientific journals invited PrimeGen to submit articles," Greenberg says.